As a raging Stephen King apologist, I never could get behind the apparent widespread belief that his all of his work in the past decade or so has been complete and utter garbage. I missed Lisey's Story and Duma Key, but I think Everything's Eventual, Bag of Bones and yes, even the much-maligned From a Buick 8 are fine, often great books (I'd toss the first half of Dreamcatcher in that pile, as well), even if they're not quite up to the snuff of his '80s output. That's why I'm surprised to hear myself proclaiming his newest work a "return to form." What exactly was he returning from? I don't know. All I know is that I'm glad he's back.

Under the Dome is the story of Chester's Mill, Maine and how one day, out of nowhere, a giant, indestructible, invisible "dome" envelops the city, crashing a plane, taking limbs off and causing more than several gruesome vehicular accidents. No one can get in and no one can get out and increasingly horrible things begin to happen to everyone and anyone over the course of nearly 1100 pages.

Yep, 1100 pages. This book could easily double as a brick. Hitting someone with a copy guarantees an assault with a deadly weapon charge. Rumors are that each copy requires the destruction of twenty square miles of rain forest. This. Book. Is. HUGE.
But it reads fast. Under the Dome is not a slog and it's not frustrating and it never spins its wheels. Despite the epic length, there is not a single spot of fat in this story. It just flies. King's earlier work may have had that tinged-in-madness, ravings of a psychotic, high on a smorgasbord of illegal substances feeling that makes them such bizarre, captivating reads (IT for instance), but the professional, level-headed style of Under the Dome showcases King's maturity as a writer. This is not the work of a young, hungry writer with a head full of ideas and a nose full of cocaine, but the work of an older man with a lot on his mind and a great deal to be angry about.

How angry is Under the Dome? Well, let's just say the events of "Dome Day" and the repercussions that follow mirror 9/11, the Bush Administration, Hurricane Katrina, the Patriot Act, the war on terror, the war in Iraq, prisoner abuse, waterboarding and yes, even global warming. It's not subtle, but King's fears aren't subtle. The book feels like an encapsulation of eight of the most traumatic years in American history. It truly feels like something King had to get off his chest.

This is all summed up with one character: "Big" Jim Rennie, not only one of King's greatest villains, but one of the scariest, most loathesome characters I've ever had the discomfort to spend over a thousand pages with. A used car dealer, Big Jim is the extremely corrupt whip-smart second town selectman, pulling all of the strings behind the dim-bulb first selectman (like I said, not subtle). King has always written strong villains, but this may be the first that I truly dreaded. Big Jim (and by extension, King himself) pulls no punches and cuts (and shoots and burns and eviscerates) his way through a massive cast of likable folks who we grow to love, only to see them die in a myriad of horrible, horrible ways.

King juggles a massive ensemble of characters here (he even provides an index of every major character at the front of the book...all 66 of them) but every person is well-drawn and in their own little way, interesting. If there's anything particularly wrong with his character writing, it's that characters tend to be GOOD or EVIL, with very few of them falling into the middle grey zone (although characters that do, like first selectman Andy Sanders, prove to be among the most interesting in the whole book). Although the story mostly centers around Dale Barbara, a retired soldier turned diner cook, I was engrossed by every personal story. The second half of the book sees the body count increase dramatically and for the first time in a long time, King was allowing me to feel each of the deaths. This is a slow-burner in terms of King's trademarked gore, but because he lets it simmer, it hits all the harder.

If this review is vague on plot details, it's because I'm desperately trying to avoid spoilers. However, I want to touch on the ending, mainly because, well, we all know King stinks at writing endings. How many solid books has he ruined via deus ex machina? Or how about the infamous inexplicable orgy scene that caps off IT? The last chunk of pages in a Stephen King novel should always be viewed with trepidation and dread.

I'm happy to report that King not only sticks the landing in Under the Dome, he does so with flying colors. The last 150 pages are among the best he has ever written. The final resolution, the secrets of the Dome and King's final unsubtle but equally bleak and beautiful message are masterstrokes. You can't please everyone, but to me, this feels like the right ending. Of course, King does step into puddles of head-scratching lunacy at times (Psychic dogs? Come on, Steve), but he's either learned self-control or his editor actually stood up to him. Either way, I'm glad.

I don't want to be that fanboy moron calling Under the Dome a masterpiece on the level of The Stand or IT. It's too soon to make wild and crazy proclamations that will come back to bite me on the ass. Let's just say that this is King's best book in years, a sprawling, crazy read with a lot on it's mind and a bone to pick with the world at large.

And did I mention it's fun? Because it's really fun.
categories Features, Sci-Fi